The Holdovers (dir. Alexander Payne)
By: Adam Freed
Pretentious East Coast boys school Barton Academy sits remote, frozen in time, and literally freezing as the winter holiday break approaches. As the final sands in the hour glass of 1970 slip away, students and staff excitedly pack for the entitlement of their winter vacations. Left behind at Barton are the unfortunate few, who for a diversity of reasons, have no warm embraces or sandy beaches awaiting their arrival. This icy premise proves the namesake of Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers. Burdened with the unenviable task of chaperoning Barton’s forgotten is Paul Hunham, an irascible alum turned universally loathed history teacher. Hunham’s abrasive exterior conceals his tormented soul and provides ample fodder for the laudable talents of Paul Giamatti (Sideways, John Adams) to explore the countless tiers of a gifted man, hiding in plain sight, within the comforts of the familiar school.
The joy of Alexander Payne’s direction is being permitted to witness the delicacy with which the ice slowly melts away from the wall that stands between Mr. Hunham and prickly teen Angus Tully. Adding to this tricky equation is Barton kitchen boss Mary Lamb, a mother grieving the recent loss of her son in Vietnam, who remains over the holidays to provide lonely students with meals, but also to avoid the realities of her first holiday season alone. It is this triumvirate of equally broken and vulnerable characters that makes The Holdovers one of the most emotionally deceptive films of the year. Payne has a marked talent for disguising heartbreak with humor, a skill refined through his writing and direction of Academy Award winning films Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011). In his latest work Payne relies less on the gravity of a single performance, instead allowing for the strength of his ensemble to share the emotional balance and humorous weight of the film. Mary Lamb, who often stands between Mr. Hunham and Angus, is played to scene stealing delight by Da’Vine Joy Randolph. In the tug of war between the academic and rebellious teen it is Mary who, despite her grief, proves to be the film’s central heartbeat. It is entirely too rare to find a film in which three deeply scarred characters are all provided equal paths in pursuit of peace, but only through one another. This is the lance with which Alexander Payne pierces the heart of audiences.
The Holdovers has been billed as a comedy, a coming of age story, and a holiday film. All are curiously accurate and equally impactful. When Payne’s film is at full throat it is enormously funny, evidence of the grand talent of Payne and writer David Hemigson. Yet somehow woven between moments of comedic bliss there is clear evidence of growth, and not only limited to the young Angus. Not to wade into the turbulent waters of holiday film debate, but the spirit of longing, loss, appreciation and optimistic warmth captured by the classic films that have come to epitomize the genre are all present in The Holdovers. It is through a multitude of lenses that Payne’s latest work can be considered, and should be equally appreciated regardless of perspective. The icy exterior of period specific Barton Academy provides only the outer shell and framework for The Holdovers. What awaits beneath however is an age old film, powerful enough to evoke many a laugh and a few knowing tears from audiences who thaw their holiday hands with its warming glow.
Target Score: 8/10 - Alexander Payne strikes gold for the third time in his storied career. The Holdovers is a holiday film about so much more than yuletide spirit. Across three generations of characters, Payne’s powerful film evokes meaningful moments of laughter and longing, pain and promise. Paul Giamatti once again orbits perfection but this time is the beneficiary of the laudable arrival of Da’Vine Joy Randolph.